The value of telehealth in rural communities can hardly be overstated, but the funding for those programs can be difficult to come by. The Federal Communications Commission took steps to alleviate some of this burden on June 6 when they increased the budget for the Universal Service Fund’s Rural Telemedicine Healthcare Program. These funds can be allocated for telemedicine programs in rural areas.
The FCC isn’t a medical agency, so you might ask why would they allot funds for telemedicine services. And that’s a good question. The money that they provide doesn’t go directly to starting healthcare programs or subsidizing treatment. It does, however, offer reduced cost high-speed internet connections to these programs, who are then more able to facilitate treatment that requires technology that they did not previously have access to.
The funding for the program goes directly to “reduced rates for broadband and telecom services.” The Federal Communications Commission is the agency that regulates internet and telephony services throughout the United States, so they are responsible for managing the grant that brings these services to rural America. The Rural Healthcare Program is divided into the Healthcare Connect Fund Program and the Telecommunications Program.
The first of the two subdivisions of the Rural Healthcare Program offers qualified programs a 65 percent discount on costs associated with the tools needed for telemedicine services. Specifically, they offer cost reductions on broadband expenses and network equipment necessary to facilitate a high speed connection in areas that might not have much access.
Participants in the Telecommunications Program are offered a discount that varies by locality and is based on the difference in cost between services in urban areas and services in rural areas.
Telehealth utilization is growing, but access to the necessary high-speed internet in rural communities was not meeting this pace. For many health clinics in remote areas, reliable broadband connections and the equipment to facilitate those connections were cost-prohibitive. While broadband connections could deliver healthcare into their facilities that their patients would not otherwise have access to, they didn’t have the tools to take advantage of the opportunity. These programs made it possible for clinics to get the access that they need, but the growing prevalence of telemedicine and huge care gaps outpaced access to these funds.
The increase was substantial. The formerly $400 million budget now tops out at $571 million.
The reason for the change is pretty straight forward. The budget was set in 1997, and there was no language that allowed for inflation adjustment. Thus, the funding has remained stagnant for 20 years despite changes in technology and sharp decreases in available care to rural areas.
More than just increased funding, however, the budget now allows for funds to roll over from one year to the next. If a program doesn’t use all of their funding within the initially allotted time, it can be put toward programs the following year.
For more information on the June 6 change and to find out whether your team qualifies for the extended funding, go to usac.org/rhc. For more information on whether telehealth and working with the best telemedicine companies is the right choice for your rural health clinic, request a demo and a Mend team member will be happy to walk you through how telehealth can improve access to care and reduce costs overall.